This time of year can be a little gloomy, with winter fast approaching, but thankfully we’ve got Bonfire Night to brighten our moods. All over the country on the 5th of November we celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, which has a history going back to the 17th century.
Is your memory of those history lessons in Primary School a little rusty? Read on for a quick refresher of why we all light bonfires and set off fireworks at this time of year, and why we should ‘remember, remember the 5th of November’.
And if you just can’t get enough of the flames, then keep scrolling to find out about some of the other fascinating, historic fire festivals in Europe.
Why do we celebrate Bonfire Night?
If you can’t quite remember the story behind Bonfire Night, you’ve come to the right place. Guy Fawkes was just one of a large group of English Catholics involved in the Gunpowder Plot, organised by Robert Catesby. They were fed up with the persecution of Catholics by the Protestant monarchy and parliament, and wanted to put an end to it for good. As the clock struck midnight on the night of the 4th–5th of November 1605 Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar under the Houses of Parliament with enough barrels of gunpowder to blow the whole thing to smithereens.
One of the conspirators had advised his brother-in-law to stay away from the opening of Parliament the following day, and he had gone to the authorities, who had gone in search of the plotters. If he hadn’t been discovered, the entire Royal Family and all of Parliament would’ve died that day, and our history could’ve taken a very different course.
The following year, in 1606, King James I declared the fifth of November, now often known as Guy Fawkes Day or Night, or Bonfire Night, to be a national Day of Thanksgiving. We’ve been lighting bonfires and setting off fireworks ever since then, but the practice of burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes on Bonfire Night has largely died out in recent years. Thankfully! It’s really just an excuse to wrap up warm in our winter clothes and warm ourselves by the bonfire, potentially drinking the first mulled wine of the season.
Do you love the excitement of Bonfire Night, our very own festival of fire? Well, the excellent news is that you don’t have to wait for Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night to roll around for more of the same. There are other festivals of fire in Europe which you can discover, from Scotland to Spain.
Love Guy Fawkes? Discover fire festivals in Scotland
Scotland doesn’t see much of the sun during winter, so in some places they make up for it by setting the night on fire. In Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, and on a smaller scale in 11 other villages, they really take their fire seriously, with the festival of Up Helly Aa being held on the last Tuesday in January every year, to mark the end of the yule season. It’s a big tourist draw, and a sight well worth making the trip to see.
Up to 1000 ‘guizers’ process in costume with torches through Lerwick, and have been doing so since the 1800s, when ‘tar barrelling’ (running through the streets with burning tar barrels) was banned and the locals looked for an alternative.
The Guizer Jarl, the leader of proceedings, makes a speech, surrounded by hundreds of men carrying burning torches. A huge replica of a Viking warship is made each year, and the culmination of the evening is when all the burning torches are thrown into the ship and it goes up in flames. There’s then dancing, singing and eating all night long.
But you don’t have to go as far as the Shetlands. The Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh is held on the 30th of April every year. Celebrated at the National Monument, the arrival of the May Queen and her four warriors represents the arrival of spring, and is a celebration of fertility, both of the land and the participants. She processes around various groups of performers who represent each of the primary elements whilst her warriors defend her from men in red, representing the devil.
It culminates with the queen coming together with the green man, who represents a spring seedling. They both light two bonfires to celebrate their union, and spectators pass between the fires to purify themselves and guarantee their fertility. It’s quite a sight, with a very long history.
More fire festivals in Europe: celebrations in Spain
On the 19th of March every year, the Valencia fire festival wows visitors from all over the globe. Valencia seems to burst into flames as over 700 huge papier-mâché statues, Las Fallas, which the different communities within the city work on all year round, are burned to the ground. But don’t worry, it’s all kept safely under control, under the watchful eye of the city’s fire-fighters.
No one’s quite sure where the tradition came from, but the different statues tend to represent things that have been happening in the news. Some are just meant to be funny, but some carry political messages.
There’s a huge fireworks display at midnight as the largest fallas burn in Valencia’s main square. If you want to see Las Fallas for yourself make sure you book well in advance, as accommodation books up months before the event.
There are other fire festivals in Spain, too. On the 23rd of June, the night of San Juan is celebrated with bonfires on the beach all around the Spanish coastline, celebrating the solstice.
And in Catalonia, fiestas all year round are celebrated with the correfoc, people taking to the streets dressed as devils or carrying statues of dragons, dancing as sparks fly from fireworks strapped to their pitchforks or horns. Catch the La Mercè fiesta in Barcelona every September for particularly spectacular displays.